And Two by Two They Came

So THAT’s why writing feels that way…

I love the heuristic value of a simple two-by-two matrix. I discovered its power when I was trying to understand why some of the teenagers I hung out with twenty five years ago during my dissertation were brilliant and funny and didn’t have a lot of interest in school, while others who were equally smart were teacher’s pets, somewhat dull and always dutiful. And it occurred to me that we were actually seeing two simultaneous variables. The first was whether or not they had families with sort of normal white-collar resources. And the second was whether they were engaged in testing the boundaries of what they and others knew, or were satisfied to follow the tracks laid out by others. And once I had that, once I could put it into a named model, I could suddenly see dozens of other ways that it played out.

The kids who had resources and were comfortable in how life played out were simply believers, those who knew that compliance brought rewards. But those who were both protected and wanted to know more took on the role of theologians, constantly questioning why some practice was in place, always looking for alternatives. The same contrast played out for those students with fewer resources. The ones who let it all wash over them because they knew it didn’t matter were agnostics, but the ones who felt personally threatened or demeaned and that the situation required resistance were the infidels.

I’m pretty convinced that you could take almost any two social variables, place them orthogonally to one another, and learn something interesting and meaningful about social relations and where individuals stand within them. And that’s where the uppermost graphic came from.

One of the benefits of social isolation is that you have time to a) clean out all the old articles you’ve clipped from magazines, and b) read them before recycling. So Nora had kept an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2003, by Alice Weaver Flaherty, called “Writing Like Crazy: a Word on the Brain.” This essay was a pre-publication excerpt from her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. (Thank god for the Chronicle’s pre-publication excerpts…)

Anyway, it’s a really interesting article, and the book’s probably pretty good, too. But the thing that stopped me dead was this:

Most researchers agree that a useful definition of creative work is that it includes a combination of novelty and value. Creativity requires novelty because tried-and-true solutions are not creative, even if they are ingenious and useful. And creative works must be valuable (useful or illuminating to at least some members of the population) because a work that is merely odd is not creative. This two-factor definition of creativity also provides an explanation of why the creative can be close to the crazy (unusual but valueless behavior).

And that explains so much of the travails of the early author. The attribution of whether our work is valuable is inevitably external; someone else must value it. Without that external validation, all we can know is that we’re doing work that hasn’t been done before. And the question of whether we’re creative or crazy becomes a daily (or hourly) dilemma. Steven King and Margaret Atwood don’t have to live quite so closely to that question, because the world has provided tons of validation for their work. For the rest of us, struggling to find readers… I think it’s natural that at least once in a while, we imagine ourselves to be fully insane. By definition, the writer of an unpublished work has created novelty without value; that status may change at some point, but we have no empirical grounds upon which to say that. We have no control over the value, and can’t fully trust our self-assessment.

We all know plenty of people who imagine themselves clever, but are merely annoying. The possibility of the Dunning-Kruger Effect always has to be recognized. One of the other quotes from Flaherty’s article was this simple laugh line:

As Eyler Coates put it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually produce a masterpiece. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”

This was late 2003, remember. The exponential growth of the Internet since then has introduced us to an explosion of wonders, and an even greater explosion of idiocy. Sturgeon’s Law, introduced in 1957, still holds: Ninety percent of everything is crap. How can we imagine ourselves immune?